May 4th, 2009
04:27 PM ET
11 years ago

Jackson 'wardrobe malfunction' case to be re-examined

The Supreme Court has ordered a Pennsylvania federal appeals court to take another look at the case between CBS and the FCC.

The Supreme Court has ordered a Pennsylvania federal appeals court to take another look at the case between CBS and the FCC.

WASHINGTON (CNN) - The case of Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" on national television - and subsequent fines against CBS - will be re-examined at the order of the Supreme Court.

The justices' Monday sent the case back to a federal appeals court in Philadelphia that had thrown out a $550,000 government fine against the broadcast network and its affiliates for airing the incident during halftime of the 2004 Super Bowl. The pop singer's breast was briefly exposed during a performance with singer Justin Timberlake.

After viewer complaints and national media attention, the Federal Communications Commission said the Jackson incident was obscene. In addition to CBS Inc., 20 of its affiliates also were fined.

Congress quickly reacted at the time to the visual shocker by increasing the limit on indecency fines tenfold, up to $325,000 per violation per network. And it said each local affiliate that aired such incidents also could be punished by the same amount.

But the federal appeals court concluded the communications commission had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously."

The Supreme Court's action marks the second time in recent days that it has dealt with cases involving broadcast standards. Last week, the justices narrowly upheld the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to punish networks for airing profanity.

The government clampdown on obscene images and words began in 2003. Enforcement of the law, as well as fines and sanctions for the incidents, have been put on hold while the cases are being argued.

The television networks say their scripted shows no longer air nudity, racy images or expletives, even after 10 p.m., when some potentially vulgar words are permitted.

They worry, however, about unplanned, often spontaneous indecent or profane incident at live events, such as awards shows and sporting events.

Company officials say such programs are often on a five-second delay, and censors are on hand to bleep any offensive language. But some indecent words can slip through, they admit, and they want to be protected from heavy government fines.

Critics call that laughable. "This past summer, CBS edited into a show that had to go through multiple reviews, by multiple people in the organization, the F-word," said Tim Winter, who heads the Parents Television Council, and is supporting the Federal Communications Commission's efforts. His group advocates "responsible" programming, and warns parents about questionable program content. The show in question was "Big Brother 10," a taped series.

The Jackson incident was not on a five-second delay.

In the case involving profane language, the high court concluded 5-4 that the communications commission has the authority to sanction broadcast TV networks that air isolated incidents of profanity, known as "fleeting expletives."

But the justices in that case refused to decide whether the commission's policy violates the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. It ruled only on their enforcement power. The justices ordered the free-speech aspect to be reviewed again by a federal appeals court.

The "wardrobe malfunction" case is FCC v. CBS Corp. (08-653).

Filed under: Popular Posts • Supreme Court
soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Royster

    WHAT A WASTE of time and money.......500,000 is chump change to the networks. Perhaps this lawsuit might be the best thing for Janet's career....since we have heard little from her since seeing!

    May 4, 2009 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  2. Ted

    total miscarriage of justice. Holy Crap – a breast was exposed. We are such a screwed up society. Maybe Janet Jackson should have to wear a birka the rest of her life.

    We have so many other crucial things going on and they are going to continue to go wacko over something – admittedly shouldn't have happened – that should have died.

    May 4, 2009 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  3. Jeff

    The time and money for this issue is beyond stupid. I think the whole thing is just greedy lawyers wanting to get paid. To anyone offended by this brief "indecency" stay away from me and my family. You are scary.

    May 4, 2009 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  4. Expat American

    Pretty stupid. Simply an American woman seeking attention. The Supreme Court needs to waste time over this? Why not open a case on every single starved for attention, drama queen STD carrier who appears on those ‘Girls Gone Wild’ videos?

    May 4, 2009 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  5. Richard A. Spomer, Alexandria, VA

    The United States Department of Vocational Rehabilitation Services has acted Arbitrarily & Capriciously as to services not being provided which according to section 503 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

    Don't judge unless thou art ready to be judged.

    May 4, 2009 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  6. WOW!!!!

    Are you telling me the government has nothing better to do with our money and their time. What in the world are the there for???!!!!!

    May 4, 2009 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  7. joe smith

    well, we all know who owns the media, doesn't surprise anyone to learn that it would be construed as arbitrary or capricious, thus allowing the station to avoid the penalties they rightfully deserve to expression comes with certain over-riding responsibilities..but the media, and their owners, always want to push the envelope, and then cry freedom of expression has been compromised, when the majority objects..

    May 4, 2009 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  8. Melissa

    Oh for gods sakes, get over it. It was just a breast. Stop being such prudes.

    May 4, 2009 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  9. Mississippi Mike

    This is so stupid. It's not like her outfit was covering up anything anyway. It happened, people have moved on. No one was hurt.

    May 4, 2009 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  10. Anonymous

    Showing a breast by accident is obscene? Get a grip. They should instead focus on all the violence that's shown on primetime tv.

    May 4, 2009 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  11. Canuck

    Bizarre, the US that embraces the right to bear arms, and you can see any act of violence on TV, and, I mean the NFL? Guys are being busted for drug use, beating spouses, and once in a while we can witness a player literally being crippled live on TV...and people cheering the hit, now thats obscene, not a woman's breast.

    May 4, 2009 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  12. Tom from Roch., NY

    There's freedom of speach and then there's greedy. Janet Jackson should be fined, not the CBS. She knew exactly what she was doing. It was her non-wardrobe malfunction, not the TV stations.

    Here a new idea, how about punishing the people who do the crime, not the innocent by-standers.

    May 4, 2009 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  13. Jeff W.

    I'm so sick of the faux outrage over this incident. To believe that people were so "offended" that it would require changing all sorts of indecency laws is beyond ridiculous and another example of how the Republicans chose to focus on the wrong issues over the past 8 years. No wonder the rest of the world laughs at us.

    May 4, 2009 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  14. No More Incumbents

    Nice to see what the real pressing issues are in the US.

    May 4, 2009 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  15. Brandon

    Why are we so prudish in this country? Get real.

    May 4, 2009 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  16. shoegazer

    It was all Timberlakes' fault.........

    May 4, 2009 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  17. Oh Great!

    If you think this is about a woman "seeking attention" or a waste of time because $500K is "chump change," you obviously don't understand this case at all. $500K may be peanuts to a major network, but to their LOCAL AFFILIATES, being fined $500K can put a TV station out of business. It's not the affiliates' fault. They air what the network sends them over the satellite. Yet they can be held responsible for actions that they don't know are coming. That, IMO, is not fair to them.

    That, on top of the fact that this whole thing is stupid. Her boob was on TV for a second. Big deal. It's a boob, people. You all have them.

    You are right, Ted. Our society is screwed up. We're a nation run by old folks who are so out of touch with reality and listen to the cries of a few whiners. We tolerate violence, and lots of it, on our TV screens, but heaven forbid a boob or a butt is shown. It's okay for TV networks to show people getting shot and blown up and tell sexually suggestive jokes, but if a boob is shown lets all freak out like the Swine Flu hysteria. It's sad.

    May 4, 2009 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  18. Garry

    Total waste of far as "indecency"..please, give me a break..I have seen a lot worse watching Entertainment Tonight!
    IE: LiL Kim weraing apstie over her breast during an awards ceremony!
    Please...and folks so called "offended" by it need to grow up!

    May 4, 2009 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  19. Jim

    I never was much for the Super Bowl. I was flicking through the channels and came across it right at the beginning of the half time show. I thought to myself "these half time shows are always lame", and just kept going the the channels. Wrong choice that year.

    May 4, 2009 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  20. al

    This country was founded by the Puritans....too bad they never left.

    When are we going to get over these stupid provincial 17th century thoughts and attitudes about the human body?

    May 4, 2009 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  21. jim rice

    Families are ruining this country.

    Especially the stay-at-home house moms who support dumb crap like this.

    May 4, 2009 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  22. David Nitzsche-Bell

    Forget "justice" and "time" and "money"

    When are we Americans going to stop being so prissy? We claim that we are so accepting, so open, so laid back, etc. and yet, we spend more time worrying about stuff like this.

    Ok, so some breast was shown. So what?!

    Come on, Americans, let's grow up a bit and relax. It's not a big deal. Seriously. No, really, it's not.


    May 4, 2009 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  23. Bob H.

    Ah! The unbelievable power of the African-American breast makes Superman look helpless in comparison.

    May 4, 2009 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  24. tom

    no big matter on the recesssion,swine flu,warring with other countries and real criminals but god forbid a breast being exposed on t.v and offend anyone.all those old dinosaurs in congress hurry up and die already and get younger people who got more sense than waste time and money on this non issue.

    May 4, 2009 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  25. MN Bluess

    sexy commercials pop up while the kids are watching, or movie pre-views of a man being possessed tattooed by a demon, scary whispers in the background. Gesh.....I rather you just show them a quick accidental view of a breast.

    so many law-suits (thats where the greed comes in) that lead to new laws and more laws–pretty soon you can't breath in public without being fined

    May 4, 2009 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
1 2